The Book That Changed My Life

Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell was honored in 1995 as a National Book Award Fiction Finalist for All Souls' Rising.

The first piece of "serious and literary" grown-up fiction I remember reading without duress was All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. I was fourteen, and for the past two years my pleasure reading had consisted entirely of science fiction-I consumed one book per day in this genre. Not all of this time was wasted, but the diet had become a little monotonous.

The lads a year ahead of me in high school were assigned to read Warren's novel. I picked up a copy in a study hall, to while away fifteen minutes of tedium. In that amount of time I was hooked. First edge of cynicism on its poetic valences. When I had read more of the book I was taken by the richness of its meanings, how thoroughly and thoughtfully the sense of every action and episode had been interlocked with all the others. I had wanted to be a writer before, but I had known that this was what a book could do, or that this was how you did it.

I reread All the King's Men half a dozen times in high school, and at least once a year through college and a few years beyond. For me it was a portal to a whole lot of other serious fiction, but the novel itself holds up very well under such intense poring. I have taught to my own students from time to time, with good results for both them and me.

George Garrett once said to a class of which I was a member that one of the problems of college student writers is that they were fed a diet of masterpieces. Masterpiece fiction is too well made for you to figure out how the writer did it. To pick up technique, the thing to do is read genre. Where the screws and slots are apt to be more obvious. So two solid years of science fiction weren't wasted after all! But to that I can add that if you have the patience (the obsession?) to reread a masterpiece novel a few dozen times, then its tactics and mechanics will begin to be visible. In that sense All the King's Men was a good instructor for me.


Madison Smartt Bell